“Thank you for improving our school… but what’s the point if children cannot come?”
These were words shared by the principal of a primary school in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region.
Going beyond sustenance to supporting local education
When Mekong Quilts, a Vietnam–Cambodia social enterprise focused on creating sustainable fabric-based work for underprivileged women, began evaluating the kindred relationship between student success and education, founding director Bernard Kervyn swiftly identified the lack of continued education as a major hurdle to breaking the poverty cycle.
Since 1994, Mekong Quilts’ parent organisation Mekong Plus NGO has launched an onslaught of education-focused initiatives that ranged from counselling teachers to dental health drives in the classrooms and sexual education in middle schools—an initiative that was initially frowned upon by educators and parents, but later celebrated for its effectiveness in curtailing gender-related bullying.
With a significant push and helping hand from Mekong Plus, Mekong Quilts launched a successful scholarship programme in the early 2000s that now supports more than 3,500 students annually.
Covering VND500,000 (US$21) for primary and secondary education, and VND1,000,000 (US$43) for high schoolers, the humble scholarship which subsidises more than 20% of the cost of education in Vietnam continues to help impoverished families tide over post-pandemic difficulties and rising costs.
Distance to school a chore for most impoverished families
With all that accomplished, Mekong Plus and Mekong Quilts’ volunteers’ interaction with beneficiary families began to reveal an underlining problem that had to be rectified. Many rural families live surprisingly far from town centres where the majority of schools are located.
“There are cases where the boys would walk 3-4 kilometres four times a day between their homes and schools just so they can save money by having lunch at home,” Bernard said, explaining how this often resulted in them drained of energy and the ability to concentrate in class.
Group of Vietnamese kids walking back home after school
In Hàm Thuận Nam district of Vietnam’s costal Bình Thuận province, commuting to school is frequently a 20-kilometre ordeal—impractical without a bicycle or scooter.
Only 2 high schools serve the district’s population of 100,000 Vietnamese citizens.
“We realised that almost a third of children failed to complete Grade 10 because of inaccessibility,” Bernard added, explaining that high school fees of US$100 a year is a comparatively smaller concern compared to the rising cost of gas or renting a dormitory room closer to school.
The gift of bicycles equals the gift of education
Starting from reconditioning used Japanese single-speed bicycles, the Mekong Quilts’ team embarked on the mission of equipping as many students with two-wheelers as possible.
“We have conversations with teachers to identify the children who are at risk of dropping out because of the lack of mobility,” Bernard elaborated.
In Cambodia, Mekong Quilts contributes US$35 for the purchase of a bicycle while families pledge to top up the remaining US$10.
Happy kids cycling to school in rural Vietnam
“Strengthening the sense of ownership has always been a core value at Mekong Plus,” Bernard added.
Beyond just peddling to school, many students could now also supplement families incomes by selling vegetables and homemade cakes on their way back home thanks to access to bicycles.
In Long Mỹ rural district of Vietnam’s southern Hậu Giang province, Nguyễn Đăng Khôi is a 6th Grade student who has benefited greatly from the initiative.
With his diabetic father working as a motorbike taxi driver every day, Khôi has shared an old and often malfunctioning bicycle with his 15-year-old brother to school daily for half a decade. After his brother began high school at another school, Mekong Plus worked with partner NGO Ánh Dương Centre to acquire another bicycle for the family to help Khôi continue education without hiccups.
How you can help Mekong Quilts
With the pandemic largely under control, schools are reopening, and countless families are faced with the prospect of sending children back to school after a difficult year 2021 of unsold crops, financial difficulties, and amounting debt.
“From an economic point of view, they have not recovered!” Bernard exclaimed.
For about US$70, one can consider sponsoring a new or reconditioned bicycle for a child in need.
An old bicycle in a street of Vietnam
For expatriates and locals who are upgrading their ride or leaving the city, donating an old bicycle is another welcomed option that will help children reach the classroom.
Charity is fun for the entire family!
With Mekong Quilts’ new shop at 85 Pasteur Street open in Ho Chi Minh City, residents and tourists may drop by to experience Mekong Quilts’ unique quilts and handicrafts inspired by ethnic art from both countries.
Mekong Quilts’ brand new shop in HCMC’s District 1 is ready to welcome you
To test ride Mekong Quilt’s unique bamboo bicycles and learn more about Mekong Plus’ commitment to uplifting lives in Vietnam and Cambodia, residents and tourists in Ho Chi Minh City may visit Mekong Plus Facebook Page to join regular Sunday biking tours in the city’s rare green sanctuaries located in District 9.
The modest VND300,000 (US$12,50) contribution per cyclist is easily equivalent to the price of a child’s bicycle when a family of five participates!